Brain Food

This last week I have been very fortunate to spend an illuminating time at the Girls’ School Association Heads’ Conference.  We were entertained, educated and learnt much from a variety of world class speakers, including JoAnn Deake, an eminent psychologist who has spent much time studying the neurological patterns of the brain, understanding how girls learn most effectively.

During the first ten years of a girl’s life her brain is growing neurons and the role of learning is to enable the dendrites in the neurons to connect. These connections are vitally important for the intellectual development of the human being; the more connections made the easier it is to learn. These connections take time to form and when a girls find a problem hard it means the connections have not ‘yet’ been made. ‘Yet’ is the important word as girls need to be encouraged to persevere when the problems are hard, as she works through the problem the connections start to occur. Too often girls dismiss themselves as not been able to solve the problem because they are not clever enough when this is not the case. They need to work at the problem for the connections to happen. We need to constantly encourage our girls to persist when the work becomes difficult, not allowing them to believe they have plateaued but instead teaching them to appreciate that hard work and perseverance is needed to make the connections and for the problem to be solved.

JoAnn Deake highlighted that these connections are made in the first ten years of a girl’s life, in the second ten years these connections need to be built upon. If the connections are not reused they will be stripped back. As the adage goes ‘it you don’t use it, the brain prunes it’. This has implications for learning, if girls are allowed to drop things too early the brain will forget how to do it and it will take decades to restore. Trying learning a foreign language or a musical instrument past the age of 30, it is far more difficult than at the age of 10.

This raises important questions for the curriculum. At what age should girls drop subjects? In the UK this happens at 16 when they embark on a narrow diet of A Levels. In most other English speaking countries, pupils continue with English, Modern Foreign Language, a Science and Maths to the age of 18. Still stretching the brain in a range of areas rather than allowing that development to stop. It is a powerful argument for International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme which insists that pupils study six subjects, which includes all of the above. Its CAS programme also ensures creativity is sustained.

JoAnn Deake’s talk was very powerful in understanding the teenage brain, but for me it again helped reinforce the educational value of IB which is why we are so proud as a school to be offering it.

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